Arts Entertainment
Theater seats iStock/for PhillyVoice

Naturally, Philadelphia got the first theater in the U.S. because of the sheer size of the city.

September 06, 2017

Philadelphia offers binge-watching opera festival

PHILADELPHIA — In a downtown theater, five teenagers take refuge at a site once occupied by members of the radical group MOVE. Across the street, a serial killer terrorizes Victorian London. Up the block, the bird-catcher Papageno longs for true love. A bit further afield, spectators at two museums watch opera amid the art.

Welcome to O17, as Opera Philadelphia is calling its festival season, a 12-day explosion of works new and old performed more or less simultaneously at diverse venues in the heart of the nation's fifth-largest city.

"The idea is to kind of Netflix the opera experience, to package a binge-watching opportunity," said David Devan, the company's general director. "Everything you're going to see is like with your remote control going to a completely different channel."

So from Sept. 14 through the 25th, customers can choose from among five full-scale productions. Three are world premieres: "We Shall Not Be Moved," with music by Daniel Bernard Roumain, libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and directed by choreographer Bill T. Jones; "Elizabeth Cree," by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, adapted from a thriller by Peter Ackroyd; and "The Wake World," an adaptation of a mystical fairy tale by the English occultist Aleister Crowley with music by David Hertzberg that will be performed alongside the Impressionist treasures of The Barnes Foundation.

There's also Mozart's "The Magic Flute," in a version by Australian director Barrie Kosky that sets the characters against an animated backdrop and replaces dialogue with silent-movie titles, and a double bill called "War Stories" pairing Monteverdi's "Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda" with a modern work, "I Have No Stories to Tell You," music by Lembit Beecher and libretto by Hannah Moscovitch.

As if that's not enough, the festival offers soprano Sondra Radvanovsky — a week before she opens the Metropolitan Opera season in Bellini's "Norma" — singing a recital and leading a master class, plus a free broadcast in Independence National Historical Park of last season's production of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."

Why this burst of events packed closely together, instead of the previous format which spaced four productions over the course of an entire season?

The hope is that the barrage of new and offbeat offerings will attract local ticket buyers tempted by the unusual repertory and also that out-of-town visitors may come and stay for several events.

For Devan, it's a simple matter of survival. The old model of asking customers to buy subscription packages that committed them months ahead has long been failing — an experience shared by most U.S. opera companies.

"By everyone's agreement we were getting better, but we weren't seeing the results at the box office," he said. Had the company not made this drastic change, "We calculated that we would be unsustainable within a 10-year period. Costs go up. We weren't attracting enough new customers."

But Devan has not abandoned the core of loyal fans who still prefer the subscription model. The company will stage two productions later in the season — George Benjamin's modern masterpiece "Written on Skin" in February and Bizet's ever-popular "Carmen" in April and May.

That hybrid approach may become the model for other mid-size and smaller companies. Both Fort Worth Opera, which switched to festival-only in 2007, and Vancouver Opera, which did so last season, say they plan to add back one or two fall or winter productions to please local fans.

Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting the art form, said a lot of other companies are "keeping an eye on Philadelphia" because they see "the advantage of the kind of aesthetic intensity you get when you do several operas in conjunction with each other. And you make the festival city a destination, give people a compelling reason to come from out of town."

Two weeks out, all three of the premieres are nearly sold out, Devan said, and close to a third of the people who bought tickets to more than one performance are from outside a 70-mile (112-kilometer) radius of Philadelphia.

"People in Philadelphia . opera patrons around the country . they all want it desperately to be successful," he said.